Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Amsterdam – Let’s ride bikes!

Ten years ago, I had arrived in Amsterdam with a couple of travelers from New York. We stepped off the train and into a crush of Amsterdam traffic, which was unlike any other I’d ever seen. On the far right was a sidewalk. To the left of the sidewalk was a bike lane. Next came a lane for cars, followed by a tram lane in the middle. The New Yorkers got frustrated that they had to walk at the pace of the people in front of them, so decided to walk in the bike lane. This caused a bike to swerve into the car lane and a car to swerve into the tram lane. Stupid tourists.

I never got on a bike though. My hostel was downtown, and I stayed safely on the sidewalk.
Fast forward a decade, and Leslie and I were quite lost our first day in Amsterdam. We were staying outside downtown. The tram cost $3 each ride, so we decided to make the 20 minute walk into the downtown core for dinner.
We made downtown with no problems and had dinner at a place called Wok to Walk, which lets you pick noodles, fresh ingredients and a sauce, then it’s fried in a Wok in a matter of minutes.
The way back was a different matter. It was raining, and we were lost. We ended up on a main-road, watching bikers fly by with no problem. On top of that, when the cars got caught in traffic, the bikes would pass them all. Our feet were sore, our legs were tired and we were wet. The map I had was dangerously close to falling apart due to the rain. We eventually made it back, but were tired and miserable. The whole experience drove home a point.
Amsterdam is designed for bikes.
We began day two by renting bikes from Star Bike Rentals. I had a silver one with an unintelligible Dutch brand name. Leslie got one labeled “Granny”.
Dutch bikes are not like bikes we’re used to. First off, they’re fixed-gear bikes, so no shifting. They’re also back-brakes and do not have brakes on the handlebars. I hadn’t ridden a bike that had those sorts of breaks since I was ten or so. The handlebars were curved towards the rider and finally, the rider was supposed to sit upright. In the bike’s we’re used to, we usually have our weight over the handlebars, built to help drive momentum forward. The dutch bikes have you sit straight upright, which would make it easier to carry things, such as grocery bags.
I asked the guy behind the counter if there was anything I should know about the traffic laws. He gave me two pieces of advice, “the little triangles pointing towards you mean yield” and “don’t get hit by a tram.
My first foray into the world of Dutch bikes made me feel like a drunken lemur.
We pushed the bikes out of the store into a relatively empty parking lot to get some practice. I swung my leg over the seat, put my foot on the pedal and pushed forward. I expected the pedal to slide to the down position and to gain some forward momentum. Instead, I slammed on the brakes and jammed my mid-section into the handlebars. Ouch.
Leslie had completed a circle behind me and looked ready. This time I made sure the pedal was forward and pushed off with an awkward, running-ish motion. We were off.
I was a bit nervous because the bike-shop was right by the central train station and bus station, so we were going to be in the busiest section of traffic right at the start.
Fortunately, there was a bike path that separated the bikes from trams, trains and buses as we made it through central station. In less than a minute, we had reached a T in the road with a stop sign. The bikes in Amsterdam have their own traffic signals, which look just like the red-yellow-greens in the USA, except instead of circles, the lights are in the shape of bicycles. They also light both the yellow and red light when it’s about to turn green.
We came to the first stop sign and I slowed down. Unfortunately, my US-style bike instincts failed me again. I remembered to use the rear brakes, but as my speed reduced to where I was about to lose balance I put my feet down. I wasn’t all the way stopped though, so I put down my feet and immediately whacked myself in the Achilles tendon with the pedal. Ouch.
The goal of a quick ride across central station was a no-go as stop sign halted us to let the tram pass. We lined up with all the Dutch people. We were probably four bikes across and four bikes deep when the light turned green and everyone crossed the street tram path and headed down the street.
Our goal was a restaurant we found in The Lonely Planet called “Pancakes!” in the hip Jordaan district of Amsterdam. Once we left central station the bikes began to thin out. I took a left when it looked easy and we found ourselves riding along a canal. There was room for a car on the side of the canal, but the cars had to go slow to make sure they didn’t hit anything. Most of them stayed on the main street with the trams leaving the canal-side streets for the bikes. Nobody was in our way and we coasted down the canal. The bikes fit Amsterdam like an old pair of sneakers.
About five minutes later we had crossed a quarter of the city and found ourselves locking up the bikes outside Pancakes!
It was a bit expensive, but definitely worth it as we had one of the best breakfasts of the trip. Leslie ordered the Muesli pancakes, which came with yogurt and fruit on the side while I had the daily special. A Dutch pancake with chorizo and spring onions.
The Dutch usually serve a single pancake that’s about a quarter inch thick and about a foot in diameter. It was a BIG pancake. The onions were mixed into the batter and cooked along with the pancake. The chorizo was a sausage 2.5 inches in diameter that was sliced into quarter inch thick slices and placed into the top of the pancake. It looked almost like pepperoni on a pizza.
After breakfast we ended up biking around Vesterpool Park before heading towards Newendijk, which is the center of the downtown core. Pronounced NEW-in-dike
We ended up riding alongside a rather major street and I saw something that made me think it wasn’t only the New Yorkers making fools of themselves due to Amsterdam traffic. A group of six was riding right towards us, looking around, dodging oncoming traffic and making general chaos of the streets. I think they had just rented their bikes as they looked terrified. I pointed at the other side of the street.
A young women looked at me and asked, “Other side?” in a thick British accent.
“Right side,” I responded, remembering that the Brits usually drive on the left. A sheepish look came over her as she realized what they had done. She waved her hands and yelled in a self-mocking fashion, “look! I’m a tourist!” Stupid tourists.
One of my favorite parts of the bikes is that it makes the city so compact. I’m not sure exactly how many bikes you can park in a standard car parking space, but it’s a lot. As a result, the city is quite condensed. You can handle many more people with the same infrastructure. In fact, when you get closer to the city-center, the cars are forbidden and you can only ride bikes.
When you get to Newendijk, there’s no bikes and everybody walks.
Newendijk is unique. There’s probably room for a car and a half, but the streets are packed with people. The little windy roads are covered in cobblestone. Major brand-name stores intermingle with boutiques, cheese shops and of-course, coffee shops.
As many of you will probably know, coffee shops in Amsterdam are where one goes to buy marijuana and hash. I’m not exactly sure how it works, as technically, the drugs are illegal, but it’s available everywhere. In fact, we had a little difficulty when trying to find a place that was an actual coffee shop although Coffee@Company ended up being pretty cool.
Now I’m not going to tell anyone not to smoke weed in Amsterdam, but I will say that the drug-tourists in the hostel (probably about 1/2) were a bit annoying. Amsterdam is a beautiful, canal-ridden city with interesting cultural and culinary experiences so its frustrating when it gets reduced to a destination for drugs. Why would you want to sit stoned in the room all day?
You could go to the Red Light District! The seedier side of humanity comes out in the Red Light District of Amsterdam. We just had to see it, so we took the bikes and parked over in the Red Light around 5 o’clock.
At this point we learned that the Red Light doesn’t really come alive until later, so we decided to walk back to the Newendijk area for dinner. MAJOR mistake.
“It’s really close,” I said. “We’ll just walk and come back.” Well, we made it to Newendijk without any problems, but when it was time to come back, we got lost, and lost our bikes. “Wok to Walk” had never been more appropriate. Then it started to rain.
Once again, we found ourselves wandering the streets of Amsterdam in the rain, wishing we had bikes, and hoping the map we were carrying held together.
We found the bikes around 10 and made our way back to the hostel, no longer having the energy to see the Red Light District.
The next day, we slept in and relaxed for most of the morning before going to a “Brown Cafe” which is an old and stratospheric bar known as The Hoppe. It was quite famous and old, but frankly, I didn’t find it unique. It was a pub. Leslie had a tuna melt and I had a meatball sandwich. It was good, but I was a bit let down after it had been built up so much in the book.
We explored a bunch of the other areas of the city while we had the bikes, but they had to be returned that night. Our last ride took us right by central station again, at which point some person with a backpack started walking right down the bike path, so I dinged my bell at them. Stupid tourist.
We had turned in the bikes on our last night in Amsterdam, but we weren’t quite done.
The Red Light District was the largest collection of streets dedicated to debauchery that we’ve ever seen. Pornographic movies, coffee shops, bars and live sex-shows lined up and down the street, but the most shocking thing had to be the prostitutes.
The prostitutes were actually standing in windows up and down the Red Light in lingerie. They’d usually be combing their hair or talking on the phone, but the more enterprising of the bunch would be trying to solicit Johns. They’d scan the crowd, make eye-contact and try to entice people to come in. One woman would knock on the glass, which drew everyone’s attention. When a guy came up to the window, the door would open, and they’d have a conversation. The guy would then go it, or not.
We wanted to see someone go in, but never did. I saw a negotiation fall apart once, and we saw a couple guys come out, but we never actually saw anyone go in.
Some of the smaller streets off the side of the main red light streets had nothing but these prostitute windows. Late at night, one alley had a line of guys in front walking quietly and staring. We were done and done.
This time, we took the tram back to the hostel. We didn’t get lost.
Next stop, Copenhagen, Denmark.
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